A visit to Alert Bay, British Columbia

Sep 23, 2017 - National Geographic Quest

As the sun rose in the eastern sky, the National Geographic Quest was making her way north through Johnstone Strait. Looking to the east we watched the sun make its way up behind the coastal range of the mainland of British Columbia. The light was shifting from bright peach to a deep golden hue as the sun moved up and over the landscape bringing light to our surroundings. To our left, Vancouver Island and its mountains were shrouded in mists which deepened as we moved north. Shortly after breakfast the Quest was shrouded in fog. Many of us remained on the bow watching common murres darting in and out of deep fog banks.

Due to weather our arrival to Alert Bay was slightly early, allowing for time to tie up at the government dock near the south end of town. Our compliment of guests were divided into four groups and slowly we entered the First Nations village of Alert Bay, established in 1870 to house workers for a salmon cannery. Later a residential school was built, which drew more First Nations members to be near their children. Our large walking group made its first stop at the Namgis Original Burial Grounds. We were met by Trevor Isac and introduced to totem poles and a little of the First Nations history of Alert Bay. Our afternoon was spent enjoying a walk through the community, visiting with locals, and doing a little shopping while making our way to the U’mista Cultural Center. This extraordinary building houses many exhibits including a fine collection of repatriated Potlatch regalia that was returned to the Kwakwaka’wakw people in 1980 when the U’mista Cultural Center was officially opened. Entering the lower exhibition hall constructed exactly like a traditional Big House we were guided through the Potlatch regalia as it would be worn and shown during a traditional Potlatch.

From the U’mista we made our way to the Big House where we were hosted by the T’sasala Cultural Group. As the central fire warmed the building Andrea Cranmer and her mother Vera Newman came forward to open our afternoon of crossing a bridge between cultures. Elders, young men and women, an amazing three year old all found their way into our hearts. At the end of the exhibition dances we were all invited out onto the main floor of the Big House to share in a fun dance. Nearly everyone from the National Geographic Quest was on the floor enjoying the warmth and hospitality extended to each of us!

After introductions were made each member of T’sasala came forward and shook hands with everyone, while Norm and Donna Stouffer unwrapped freshly barbecued Sockeye salmon, homemade banoc, and homemade jams to accompany our experience of local and traditionally made foods. We were not just guests experiencing an exhibition of dances seen during a Potlatch; we were, each of us, a witness to a living culture. A message we heard from Andrea, her mother, and all the members of T’sasala was to please go home and share the success story of this living culture being passed on to its next generations. 

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About the Author

Sharon Grainger

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Sharon’s degrees in Psychology and Anthropology from Eastern Washington University have given her a good base to pursue her profession as a naturalist and photographer. With five generations of artists behind her, she has developed a portfolio of images covering many interests including indigenous cultures, ethnobotany, natural and cultural history. Photography gives voice and interpretation to her experience of the world. Spending many years with Native peoples has dramatically affected her attitude towards how and what she sees. She recognized, through these experiences, the diversity of peoples around the world. This began a lifelong curiosity about the variety of ways in which different cultures relate to each other and this planet.

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